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|Oral History Interview with Elaine Carter
Catalyst of the Black Women's History Project
Where are you from?
Do you mean originally?
Roanoke, Virginia. I was born in Roanoke and reared in Elliston, Montgomery County.
And what were your parents names?
My father was Albert Garland, and my mother was Talma. Serrell was her maiden name.
When I asked you where you were from, you said where originally. Was that because you moved around a lot?
A lot. I left Montgomery County to go to college. I started my college career in suburban Chicago, River Forest, Illinois. After two years there, I transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. where I graduated in 1952, and I worked for a year in Washington.
Then I went to Boston College graduate school to pursue a master's in sociology and remained in Boston. I started my work life in earnest, I started my work life in Boston, and I lived in Boston from 1955, actually 1954 until 1962 where I moved to New York City. I left New York in 1991, so New York City is my adult home. I lived there from '62 to '91.
And then you came back to Virginia after that?
Came back to Virginia, yes.
What did your father do?
My father was a hotel bellman at the Patrick Henry Hotel for years. Well certainly throughout my life of knowing him. I think he worked the night shift as a bell captain, but mostly he'd work days. That's what he did most of his life. When that job was no longer available to him, he was a maintenance man, janitor I guess you would call it, for a retail store.
Did your mother work outside the home?
My mother did. When I was ten years old, my mother began to teach again. My mother had taught prior to her marriage. She had not finished college, but she had taught in Henry County, Virginia. So she returned to teaching when I started high school.
What did your mother teach?
She the taught the seven elementary grades. Elliston had a one-room school, and all the elementary students were under one teacher in one room. So my mother did that, and she finished her degree during the summers, going to Virginia State and Bluefield State.
She graduated from Bluefield State, finally. But she was promoted in her teaching. She came to Christiansburg and a four-room school, and my mother taught first and second grades. Her discipline was elementary education, and she was extremely good at it. She taught up until the year she died, in 1973. She finally moved to Roanoke City schools in the very later part of her life. When she taught in Christiansburg, that was her main teaching assignment for years. When schools were integrated, she also moved to an elementary school in Christiansburg.
So that first one-room school was the Elliston one?
That's the Elliston one. That's where I went.
Was she your teacher?
No, she was not. She started teaching when I entered high school. I started elementary school in the Elliston when I was six, and I graduated elementary school when I was ten and went to Christiansburg Institute. I spent one semester in each grade throughout my elementary years.
Was that unusual?
A little bit. It was not so unusual to be double promoted. In these one-room schools, the very bright children were able to quickly master what the teacher could afford to offer them. And then they would be passed on to another grade so they could have the challenge. But I was particularly difficult to engage as a youngster, so they had to keep me moving from term to term to absorb my energy, my attention, and my learning capacity.
Because you were bored, in fact?
Well, yes, bored because you can imagine what it is to teach seven grades in one day: The range of the disciplines for the teacher, her capacity to give, to engage the kids in the content. You know the schools were an abomination. That's all you could call them. There was love and interest in the kids, but there were no activities, there were no books. The only books you had were the books you could purchase and others that people would give. So many of the students didn't even have books. The teacher was going on some sort of core curriculum that we would push through. I remember I was generally through with my day's work somewhere between ten and eleven in the morning.
So, from then on the question was: "How do we keep little Frances--my first name was Frances--busy?" I used to read to the first graders. By the time I was eight, I was helping the teacher with the first grade group.
During the war we had school lunches for the first time, so I would go to the kitchen and help Miss--we called her Miss Polly. I would help her cook and stack the dishes.
I read every book we had in the school. It was hard to have a program for a child who was a quick learner. It was very hard for a teacher in one room to engage children commensurate with their capabilities. So I figure there is a certain kind of wisdom in passing them on. So I went to high school at ten. I graduated with a ninety-nine point something average, and I was valedictorian of my class. So clearly, I wasn't disadvantaged in terms of the high school curriculum by being passed on.
The biggest problem was the breadth of education that I missed and the emotional pressures of taking on so much responsibility prematurely. To have graduated college at 18 was to have been out in the world trying to earn my living as a college graduate with all the expectations attached thereto. At that point, most young people were defined in their adult professional pursuits as adults at 21. In fact, the School of Social Work at Howard wouldn't even entertain my application because I was only 18 years old. In desperation, not being able to find a job, probably in part because I didn't know how to find one, I was willing to join the Army Officers' Candidate School. In some kind of a recreational program they would admit women. And they wouldn't accept me because when I graduated I wouldn't be 21. It was only a year course, a year regime, and I couldn't become a United States Army officer.
So it was just emotionally, it was a mess. But intellectually, it wasn't challenging in terms of my ability to keep up with the work. Not even when I went to an integrated, went into what we called the white women's college in River Forest, Illinois, an upper middle class Catholic school. I had trouble the first term with things like logic, which I had never heard of, and theology in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas. But by midterm I was okay, and I maintained a high B average thereafter.
How old were you when you went over there?
Fourteen. So that wasn't usual with the other students?
No, I was an anomaly.
You must have seemed like a child really.
I was a child. I was a child. I didn't feel the weight of the gap earlier because people at Christiansburg Institute, where I went to high school, were so accepting and protective of me that my age didn't matter. My expectations for myself were not the same as a regular high school student. The community, the students, my classmates, and the faculty and the community at large, while I was not a "darling," valued me as a member of the community. So I didn't begin to feel the tension due to my age until I got to college and particularly felt it very keenly at Howard University where I entered as a junior at 16. That was a co-educational school. I really felt isolated and lonely. I felt like a misfit for the first time in my life at Howard.
Why did you switch from Rosary to Howard?
Well, because Rosary College, although it was a wonderful experience for me, it had very little meaning in many ways. The way of life that I was being educated towards had very little meaning in my family life. I wasn't making friendships in the black community. I wasn't being exposed to the kind of social rewards of sorority life, getting in touch with the more...better off, more informed black citizens in the United States. At Rosary College there were four black students. Three were dormitory; one was a day hop. And there were three Chinese. So there I was very, very marginal.
But even the social interests--I was beginning to be a devotee of theater, and the ballet, and the museums. That was not a part of my family's world. Those were experiences I had never heard of, let alone participated in. And so in adolescence, I was feeling the gap.
Also I was getting interested in dating. I becoming an adolescent, and there was no way that I was going to have--. It was hard enough for young white women to date; Rosary was a women's college. So it was hard enough to have any social life for any of us. Among my friends this was a big thing. My Rosary College friends wanted to go where there were men so they could get married, a primary goal of women, and I guess continues to be for most of us. So that pressure and then the connection with my family, I was feeling more and more distant from the Rosemary College way.
The other thing is that I wanted to pursue sociology, and the only person--the professor who taught sociology at Rosary commuted in from Washington, D.C. The Catholic education system at that time had hardly gotten involved in the social sciences, psychology and sociology. So, Dr. Sellew advised me to go, to leave Rosary College if I wanted to major in sociology. I couldn't get a major there, and Rosary was strong in zoology and botany. I don't know about chemistry and the other sciences, but certainly those two, and education, of course. Rosary was strong in education. And, I vowed at that age I would never teach. Here, at this old age, I am preparing myself for teaching. So Howard had academic, it had social, and it had family pulls.
Do you mean family pulls in a larger sense?
In the sense of staying in touch with my family. I was feeling a gulf between the way I was going and my family's interests. Take an example. I would come home all excited about the ballet. My sister who was Howard would come excited about the Bouleys, which was a big dance, for Greek letter organizations. Well, she got absolutely adoring attention, and I got, "Oh, isn't that nice." So that was how I was feeling, that recognition I needed for my interests just could not...my family couldn't give them. I was outside of their world of experience. But at 14 and 15, you don't have any way of knowing that. So in leaving Rosemary I was trying to get their attention in part.
Now how many brothers and sisters do you have?
There are two siblings. I have an older sister, who is 22 months older than me, and then I had a younger brother, and I was 21, 20 months older than him. So we were very close together.
Did they go through school so fast?
Yes, my sister certainly did. She graduated Christiansburg institute two years ahead of me. Also as a valedictorian, and also at 14. Talma, on the other hand, went to Bluefield College. Talma was also 5 feet 7 by the time she was 14; I was 4 feet 8. So Talma matured physically much quicker. Talma also lived with my grandmother in Roanoke most of the time, so she had much more social life than I did. She also transferred to Howard University. But when she transferred into Howard, she was already a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and she already--. There were people at Howard that she knew because of her life at Bluefield State. The connections, the social ties were much, much stronger.
Just for starters.
I arrived at Howard feeling much like an alien, and graduated feeling even more like one.
What degree did you get?
In sociology. And you were 18 when you graduated?
I was 18.
Just to go back a little bit, well quite a bit from when you were in school, the one-room school, how many students were there?
You know, Tamara I've often wanted to do a finger count. I don't think there were anymore than maybe 20, 25, somewhere between 20 and 30 of us. When I first started, my first year in elementary in Elliston, there were two rooms. There was the lower grades and upper grades. But the enrollment fell, and we were all put into one room. So I had only one year of the two rooms. In fact, I recently saw my first teacher. She was the first one to pass me on. She started this business of "let her go to a higher grade because she really is so far ahead of the other children." I just saw her this year, and we were recalling incidents of my early years. She's in her 80's now, and her name was Miss Lester. Miss Lucille Lester. She's married; I don't recall her married name just now. She was from Christiansburg, the daughter of a famous family in the history of Christiansburg Institute. In fact, they continued to live, her family continued to live on the campus during my stay there although she was away.
So were these students all black students?
These were all black students. It was a totally segregated society that I was born into, reared in, and left. When Virginia was integrated, I was already in New York City.
Was it so small because the black community was so small?
Yes. The black community was small and the maintenance of racial segregation was essential. There was a white school. It was a four room school, a richer school. We, the blacks, lived up what they called, and is still called the Brake Road. Our school was about two and a half miles from the highway, which was Routes 11 and 460.
And the white school was, of course, closer to the highway. In the community, the pattern of the, the residential pattern...The better, better offs--Elliston was a rural community, and nobody was very affluent, but the people with the most material resources-- the white people lived right on the highway, and those homes are still there today. Although the main highway has been replaced with a four-lane highway. And then right behind those white people lived the black community, and the ones who were better off materially lived closest to them. It was a clear cut pattern, and then you had the poor blacks as you got up into the hills, and then you had what was often called "poor white trash" living up in the hills. These were really mountain people, many of whom were still wearing bonnets and high top boots as they would come down to the mill periodically to get flour or something like that. Their children didn't even go to school.
Even the white and black children?
No, the blacks pretty much--up the hill, black people who lived further off the road, back up into the woods, generally came to school, but unevenly and rarely graduated elementary school. They usually dropped out. One of the things that happened in Elliston, if you were 17, 18-years-old and you didn't pass you didn't--would still be in school. So the war took quite a few of the black older boy students out of school because they were still in an elementary school. Also many of them just put up their age and volunteered anyway.
So, you growing up, I don't know Elliston that well, isn't that like a small town kind of atmosphere?
Absolutely small town, rural. The houses, you had next door neighbors, but houses were more or less close together. For example, our house was on four acres of land, and we had a good little walk to the fence. You know, quite a distance to get to my uncle who lived on one side, and another uncle who was in my father's home place was on the other side, and you couldn't even see Uncle Felix's house because there was a field, I guess on the left hand side of our house, if you were looking towards the mountain, and there was an enormous field. So Elliston, and that was true of the entire community, people lived more or less side-by-side.
With their family very close?Yes, and see, my father's father was enslaved in Roanoke County. After the war, they were put off the plantation that they had lived and worked on. His mother with the children that she had. His father had been sold South. When he was a little boy, he remembers him in chains with the bit in his mouth, and I grew as a child hearing about that. In fact, the family reunion has his picture, but he and his siblings and his mother built a sort of a hut that they lived in until they were able to...
That was the last they saw of him?
That's my grandfather (showing a picture of her grandfather in a family reunion brochure). So he traveled as far as Boston in an effort to earn, after the war was over, to earn money. But he returned to Elliston, married my father's mother who was also an ex-slave, who'd been enslaved right in Elliston. They didn't call the village that then, but the family who enslaved her, their home is still there. They bore sixteen children.
My father was one of sixteen children.So both his parents were ex-slaves?
Both of my father's. My father was a direct descendant of slaves.
Did you hear much about slavery or things about it when you were growing up?
Not through my father, but through my mother. My mother's grandmother was an ex- slave, and she was very close to her grandmother. She reared her on slave stories and my mother carried hate, hatred of the state of slavery and a very strong distrust, disrespect, no regard for all white people. I guess in scientific or classically my mother was a racist. And so she really filled us with slave stories and cautioned us very much as regards race and mixing with white people. That was one of her legacies that filled my soul as a little girl and intensified my fear. The fear was real, but my mama intensified it. In contrast to her own mother, who was a daughter of a slave who rarely mentioned it and really thought my mother could make better uses of her time. But Mama enjoyed helping us to remember. My grandfather died when I was five years old, the grandfather who was a slave.
This is your father's side?
Yes, my paternal grandfather, and so I remember a stern--that face you see there was the face I saw, and he was in his late eighties I think at the time. I could count the years, but I don't associate his death with age. I was just too young.
What kind of stories would your mother tell you?
Well, she told me the stories that her grandmother told her.
Can you remember any of them?
Yes, the beating, the denial of parenthood of the slave master. She was his child, and she had a brother who was also his child; their mother died in childbirth. She talked about being whipped, being hung up by her thumbs when she was seven years old because she got too tired to fan flies. This was in Giles County or up there somewhere in the mountains. Those were slave-breeding plantations. That's how they made their money because there was the mines, and then there was slave breeding that kept the people who had money in that part of Virginia well-to-do. She was always brutalized by the mistress of the house whenever the master was away, locking her in closets and pinching her through her clothes until the blood came out. She was a little girl; she was like six, seven, or eight years old. Her grandmother who reared her was a mid-wife, and she became a mid-wife.
The one who was the daughter, actual daughter of the slave owner, that's your mother telling the story about her grandmother?
Yes. On my maternal side my great grandmother was a slave. On my father's side, both of my grandparents were slaves. My maternal grandmother died long before I was born. She died in the twenties.
So then your mother was passing on these stories that she had heard maybe not from her mother but maybe from her...
My mother's. Let me try to get things straight. On my maternal side of the family, my great-grandmother was a slave, and she died the year I was born, in 1934. On my paternal side, my grandmother, my own grandmother was a slave, and she died in the 1920s. (Interruption by phone). Like this chart, the Dowes--the Dowe, my Dowe grandparents were slaves.
And then on your mother's side when you're saying as a child that she was abused in this way, but her actual father was a slave owner?
Yes. As a matter of fact, if you want to, I don't know how much time you have, I wanted you to see them because you'll see they are basically white.
You, you actually are very white.
They are, and even my mom, but-- (shows a picture of her mother)
Wow! She's beautiful!
I think the extent of the racial mixture was one of the things that fed my great grandmother, my Granny Jones' anger is because for all practical purposes she was white, in terms of racial characteristics, but she was treated because of her slave status, she had the same brutalities.
You said there was a picture of her too?
Yes, I have seven generations of my maternal side on the wall. I carry them with me. My mother's relationship with her great-grandmother, her grandmother, my great-grandmother has informed my life tremendously. For one, it has made me particularly mindful of my intergenerational linkages and how those experiences shape your life and your values and your attitudes. The storytelling, the keeping the memories going and then watching how what was given to you as a child shows up in your own character and your own way of looking at the world is a legacy that I value a lot, and I got that from my mother.
End tape 1, side a. Begin tape 1, side b
With my father's silence about his own slave parents and their histories and their experiences, and my grandmother so preoccupied with the present and the future, I would have missed the capacity to think about how we were really constructed as human beings. And a lot of the phantoms that we all carry rather than having them come out of the closet and taking a look at them, most people tend to push them aside, so it's very hard to be truly, I think, have a real sense of self-identity until you can look back and try to decipher what has shaped you. And Mama gave me that; it wasn't her intent. I don't know what her intent was. I think the intent was a way to have a catharsis around her own pain and disappointments in her life. And race was very much a part of that disappointment, feeling restricted and undervalued.
Did you as a child, did you want to hear those stories, or those were just something you were told? And that was just part of your...
I loved it. I loved it, and as my maternal grandmother grew older, Mama having told those stories and my liking it, I was able to learn an awful lot about her because she began to talk more about her past. Not in a social sense, but in a family sense. The relationships in the family and the problems as she perceived them, what hurt her and what disappointed her. She would just go on for hours, and I could hold still. But I think my love of stories and my storytelling definitely came from that. My brother and my sister would not sit still for it, so it was a temperament thing. As with my mother, it was certainly a matter of what your temperament is as a child.
Now you said your maternal great grandmother was a midwife?
How did she get into that?
She got into it, I guess, from her own grandmother. Her mother died. From what I can gather, and one of the things I'd like to do is spend some time looking in their history a bit more. But what happened with midwifery as well as iron work, carpentry, or anything, it was passed on and likely to be passed on to the immediate members of the family that were close at hand. But Granny Jones was a midwife, and even when my grandmother was a little girl, she was still practicing it. They would go and spend months in white women's home in that part of the country during what they call their lying-in period. That was very important in my grandmother because it shaped her vision of what she wanted her own home and lifestyle to be like. She implanted that on her children with a vengeance.
Having lived with that kind of an influence?
(Transcriber: Cindy Hurd)
That's right in terms of the quality of the furniture and the taste of the home and the manners and the style. She was very interesting because as a child then, she as a little girl living out in the country in Giles County, the only girl in a family of seven. She had six brothers, all of whom were older. Most of her playmates were white children in the homes where Granny Jones was taking care of their mothers, pregnant, prenatal, and postnatal phase. And there were a couple of white women who visited my grandmother in Roanoke when I was in high school, and mostly, college. When my mother started going to summer school all summer, I would go stay with my grandmother, my maternal grandmother. These women would have their children drive them all the way from Pearisburg and Narrows and that part of the world to visit Nita. When they left her, she said well, "Oh, we've known each other since girls. Mama and I went to stay in their home," and she would play with these little girls. So that was kind of an interesting piece of her heritage.
And then it's interesting because your mother then completely, whereas your grandmother it sounds like was...
Yes, my grandmother had a different orientation to whites than my mother because my mother's only experience was through her grandmother. And through her own social experience because, see, my grandmother stayed at home with her children. She became a domestic when she moved to Bluefield. She was a day domestic. And she was reared to stay away from whites; she was so beautiful. My grandfather's whole commitment was: "Before I let my children work in service, I'll kill them, either of my daughters." Because they didn't want them sexually abused, and so that social experience, coming at a different time, and her slave stories just made my mother a pure segregationist.
I want to make sure I have this straight. Your great-grandmother was a midwife?
Your grandmother was also a midwife?
No, my grandmother was not. Because, see, she was born in a different era. Her husband was working at the tannery. She married when she was 19 to my maternal grandfather. So he basically brought in the core salary, and she and her mother who lived in a little cottage next door to her, the cottage is still there in Pearisburg right off the main street. They would do laundry. But, neither was my grandmother allowed to work in service when she was young. She only did it after she went to Bluefield. And she really didn't work much in people's homes then, she worked in a church as a cook, because of the legacy of the abuse of black women, especially very attractive...in my family there were very beautiful women, very beautiful women for generations.
So was your great-grandmother a midwife when she was a slave, or was that after the time?
She was 13 when the war ended, but I suspect that she had already, by that time, begun to assist. She had to learn it from somewhere. Her mother died, as the story was told to me, her mother died in childbirth when she was born. It was only she and her brother. Her brother passed for white right in West Virginia. He just went off; he just left. He bequeathed her in marriage to a freed black man. So at 16 she married.
So he just went off and passed for white? He was probably a son of a slave owner?
Yes, well he was. They were on the same plantation. They would pass each other on a street in Bluefield, and she'd say, "Hello John," and he would say, "Hello Ann." That was it. They recognized each other, but that was a fairly typical pattern of accommodation to slavery and racism. Black people would never betray one of their family members in the past. They would hurt, but they wouldn't betray them because their attitude was if you can avoid this, go right ahead.
So it was an easy way?
Yes, he could get a job. He could be treated as a human being. He could do that. The name that they carried was Stephens. I haven't gotten to Pearisburg. These are all stories my mother told me, and as one of my paternal aunts, who is now in her 90's, my father's youngest sister, the only one of that family who is alive, said, "What I'm about to tell you might not be the truth, but it is the truth insofar as I'm telling you exactly what was told to me." So you know as you pass this on in oral history you really would have to do a lot of checking to check it out.
What did she tell you then?
What you were just saying, your paternal aunt, what was that story?
Well, my paternal aunt, she was telling me... I asked her where my grandmother, where her mother, had been enslaved, where her father had been enslaved pretty much. Some of the stories...one of her brothers was lynched. There are two stories. One is that he was killed in West Virginia, and the other was that he was disemboweled and thrown on his friend's porch. It happened before she was born so she says, "I don't know. I've heard both these stories." But everything makes her believe that he really was killed by whites. Whether or not he was disemboweled and thrown on a porch could be true, but she did think it was, honestly.
Why was he killed?
It was reputed that he was involved with a white woman. My father, who didn't talk about these things at all, became extremely upset around my brother. I remember one day he came in, he was telling my mother to make my, not let my brother drive a convertible car and to tell him not to dress up. Because some of the white men were saying some of the young white women were talking about how good looking he was. He was trying to convince my mother how dangerous that was. Of course my mother just went into a total rage and wouldn't heed my father. She just started raving rather than trying--my father's apprehension, you won't believe this, he was just a wreck at the notion that she would not quote, "reign him in" and make him subordinate himself to expectations of what a black man should be doing. In other words to make himself as unattractive as possible. My mother--he was her favorite child--so she was hell-bent on making him as attractive as possible. So it was like a clash and in a defiant way. My father was afraid that she was not rearing him to survive in the South. So with one brother, of his brother's fate, whose name I believe was Charles, that sort of makes sense.
With your brother then, did he run into trouble because...?
Oh, my brother ran into trouble. I don't think...it wasn't race. Race was a part of it. Race could not be separated from what happened to my brother, but my brother died prematurely. A violent death. ____________. It was very, it was difficult for him. It was more difficult for him as a black man to move through the family and community context of his life than for the women.
Can you talk a little more about that?
Well, first of all black women in my family, and I'm going to make it particular to family, were extremely protective of their sons. Extremely. They suffocated them because they were so afraid that something would happen to them. It was like that for my brother. He was cautioned much more about the dangers of the world. So he had to operate in a very narrow space.
I think the other part was my own family of course. The conflicts between my father and my mother were pretty intense around everything: how to rear their children, what kind of lifestyle they wanted to aspire to, the significance of more money. My father let down...my mother was very disappointed in what she called his low-level ambitions. That was just a perpetual conflict there, and my brother got caught in that in terms of being reared not to aspire, to be like his father. But then of course he couldn't be like his mother because the whole male identity... that dimension of his life was sort of left hanging. So his was a very troubled life.
But certainly as a young black man reared in this part of the world... I admire the people who have been able to instill true aspirations in their sons and have them go on. The employment for women, at least as maids, was almost always available--child care people. But for men it was just very little that they could do, very little. Entrepreneur activities were out of the question in places like Elliston. Christiansburg, wherever there was a fairly decent settlement of black community, like Christiansburg there were a couple of little businesses and a cab company and a few things. But in those small towns like Elliston, they're not even a town--a village. If you didn't work on the railroad, you didn't work.
Was your father commuting to work at the Patrick Henry Hotel?
Yeah, my father had a car. We didn't move to Elliston until I was three. I was born in Roanoke. Daddy commuted each day, so he drove in.
That must of been pretty much of a haul, especially then. More so than now even.
It was. He left home in the dark. I used to get up and have coffee with him. He would let me have coffee in the morning. My mother would not, but he would. He taught me how to drink coffee. He told me while I was little I could have cream and sugar, but as an adult... coffee was really bad on you, you either had to go with no sugar or no cream or black. But the combination didn't wear well on your body. Don't ask me why but I believed him, so I'm a strictly black coffee drinker.
He drove in everyday. He was the public transportation for the town. There were years when he was the only person with a car, and everybody who needed to go somewhere they would come to "Mr. Albert" and off he would go. That soon changed of course. But in the beginning when we first got up there, that was the case.
So in a sense, in the community, he was doing--He had a car, he had a good job I guess in a hotel.
Yes he did. He had a job where he wasn't in overalls, and he didn't get dirty. So that was a good job. His sister built the house we lived in, and she then moved to Roanoke. We had a nice home.
So your family had property there?
Yes. My grandfather had a lot of property. My uncle Ben just bought up everything that he could get his hands on. He didn't do much with it, but he bought it up. So the Dowes as a family in Elliston were, I think, in combination they were probably the single largest black landowners--as a family. Elliston had several what you would call families that were better off--there was a social hierarchy right in that little town--the Dowes were among them. My grandfather was a very strong member of the community. He had reared these 16 children, which was just amazing, and owned land. He grew up there, worked on the railroad, was a pillar of the church...
He worked on the railroad? That's how he was able to buy land?
They were section hands. They also raised--one of my uncles from California talked more about his father than my father would. He described him as totally tyrannical, viciously. Uncle Joe described him as downright cruel. But my father's interpretation of that was: what with all those kids to keep a roof over their head...it was really a nice home. I was sorry when it was torn down--I wasn't here. But he had built that, had that home built, and they were well fed, well clothed. Two of the daughters were educated and became teachers. My father was educated and was very bright, but he was pulled out of school to go to work so his sister could go to school. One sister chose to be a domestic against her father's wishes. There were only four daughters, one died at five. Her dress caught on fire, and before they could put it out, she swallowed a flame or something like that. But two of the daughters taught. So the family was a strong family in that regard, very protective. Uncle Joe saw him as cruel; Daddy saw him as really admirable. I guess he was a combination of both.
Well if you think of what he was coming from, his own experience, because he had been a slave, right?
That's right. Oh, it's amazing, just amazing.
And then to build all that up. What were the aspirations that your mother had for your family?
First of all she wanted us to be materially well off. She wanted a lovely home. Some fantasy connected to it, but my mother's range had been, from Pearisburg she moved to Bluefield, then she went to college at Fisk University. Howard and Fisk were the most outstanding of the black colleges at that time. She went to Fisk. In Pearisburg she associated with the better educated elite of people, the doctors and the schoolteachers. So she had been reared to occupy quote "the upper ring" of society. Then my grandmother moved to Detroit. So she had an urban experience for a few years and only came back south when the Depression came and my grandmother thought it was safer and she could get along better if she was going to be poor. So she moved back here.
Is that a picture taken when she was...
Yeah, that was the picture taken, I think that picture was taken the year she married my father in 1932. So that was what she was expecting. That's what she felt. She was reared to be that way. My grandmother reared her. She played the piano; she had a very lyrical voice; she read most of the time. When she married my father she could not cook. She hated housekeeping of all types. She was a lazy, lazy housekeeper. Her life was saved by returning to teaching which she dearly loved, and she was extraordinary --she was a beloved teacher.
Coming back to Blacksburg, one of my greatest rewards has been running into some of her students. They're in their 40's, and they remember her. They hug me and just cry. She was a beloved teacher. She loved her children, and they thrived under her tutelage as individuals and as students. They were very high performers. So that sort of pulled my mother up.
But she still wanted her wonderful white house with the picket fences. She was very bitter because my father didn't carry his load. One of her mandates was to educate her children. Her mother had reared her, all of us went to college. We didn't know how not to send them to college. Even with my brother's turbulent life, my brother graduated Lincoln University and graduated well in term of leadership roles on the campus and grades.
My father he was very--my father literally ridiculed her aspirations. He preached doom and gloom for all of us. There was a part of it, I think, my sister contends and, I think, more wisely than I, she contends that it was just a war between them in which we got caught. That he really did not -- he loved us, our success in the broader world as outstanding students and leading our classes. My brother was a salutatorian of his class. Academically he was first but because none of us had ever accepted the Virginia State Scholarship Award for valedictorians his principle just arbitrarily gave him a salutatorian assignment, deprived him of his valedictorian status in favor of a very, very bright young woman because she would go to State, and in order to get a scholarship she needed to be the number one.
Oh because you didn't...?
We never did. My parents educated us. My sister went to Bluefield State; I went to Rosary College. We didn't know what scholarships were; we didn't even know how to ask for them. Graduating as Talma and I did at 14 years old, we could have gotten Ford Foundation scholarships, but we had no idea. There were no guidance counselors; our faculty apparently didn't know. That's very characteristic of the black South. People just get along the best way they can; you don't know what the broader world is composed of in terms of opportunities. You have no idea; you have no idea. I didn't get in touch with scholarships; we didn't know how to ask. My sister was accepted to Mount Holyoke, my parents somehow and my maternal grandmother would pay for it by hook or crook. Because they didn't know that they could have asked. With both of our records, just looking at our grade-point averages and all we could have made it in...but we didn't know about those things. They were just beyond.
You live in Elliston, and that's the boundaries of your world, or you live in a black segregated world. You have no idea what the broader world is like. The white world is just something you ignore because it's primarily hostile. So you don't know how it's structured. You learn a little bit in class, but that just sort of drifts away, and it has nothing to do with your reality. So you pattern yourself by those people who represent achievement as best as you can, and you go from there. At least mine was, and I think...obviously there is a great deal of diversity in how black people are reared. But I have bemoaned the narrowness of my world ever since I became aware that it was narrow, and that was at 14 years old in Chicago, Illinois. I thought, "Oh my God, look at this!" It's still has taken me all these years to feel like I know a little bit about the broader world. I still have that feeling of narrowness.
When you were growing up then, was your world a segregated world then?
The stores where you shopped and whatever?
Elliston was an interesting place. There was a general country store, and I always felt fairly comfortable in that with Sid Henson.
There was a white owner?
A white-owned store. And he kind of admired my family, particularly both of my parents' educational level. They were more compatible at some levels with Sid Henson than most of the white people in town. But that was completely segregated. The schools were segregated. The public, all public transportation. In Roanoke when we went to the stores, you couldn't get a drink of water, you couldn't go to the soda fountain, you couldn't to the bathroom. Everything was segregated. We were allowed because my father was a bellman at Patrick Henry. That's where all of the retail sales people came in. He got to know most of them. A lot of the retail stores were owned by Jews--Samuel, Speigel, Smartwear, and Irving Saks. These were the better stores in Roanoke. They got to know my dad because that's where the buyers would stay. The sales people coming in, they would come to buy.
We were allowed to try on clothes because most black people could not try on clothes, most black people could not try on clothes at the better stores. There were five black doctors --four or five I think in Roanoke, and their families could try on clothes, and we could try on clothes, even though my father was only a bellman. But most people could not try on clothes.
People could go in stores and look but they couldn't...
They could look, and they could buy, but they couldn't try on what they bought. Whatever they put their bodies in, they had to keep.
What about going to restaurants? Or lunch counters or....
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